The growth potential of the data economy is mind-blowing. Full stop. In Europe alone, the figures and forecasts are eye-catching, to say the least. The European Commission expects the value of the data economy to rise to €829 billion by 2025, up from €301 billion in 2018. But it doesn’t stop here. Focusing on the headline economic figures alone overlooks the enormous potential to use data to create lasting social change and improve the personal and professional lives of millions of European citizens.
The term digital economy is a catch-all for a wide range of digital transformation activities. It encompasses the creation and expansion of artificial intelligence and automation tools, through to the internet of things and smart city development, tracking biodiversity losses, and conducting life-saving research into a range of illness and disease. As more everyday tasks have migrated online, from interacting with your local government to placing grocery orders, data volumes have risen exponentially, too.
Yet despite the importance and the prevalence of all this data, most of it is held by a very small number of organizations – fewer than 100 businesses control more than 50% of all the data generated by online interactions. That represents a potentially harmful data divide where many businesses, individuals, countries and even entire regions could find themselves left behind.
Collaborate, don’t speculate
The EU recently outlined its European Data Strategy. It wants to ensure that “people, businesses and organizations should be empowered to make better decisions based on insights from non-personal data, which should be available to all”.
Microsoft’s Open Data Campaign, which we launched in April, advocates for greater opening, sharing, and collaborating around data, so its benefits can be enjoyed by everyone. We are committed to working with European governments to make sure that data is more accessible to companies and organizations of all sizes. Making data as open as possible benefits the largest number of people in ways that also protect early adopters and enables a thriving and innovative technology ecosystem in Europe.
Getting to that point calls for a more open and collaborative approach to data, as well as rethinking how we should perceive its value.
Take, as an example, the use of AI and data analysis in farming. More than ever, the agriculture sector needs to grow a consistently high quality of produce, while minimizing its environmental impact, and maintaining attractive prices. AI is making it possible for farmers to assess a range of interconnected data, such as climate trends and rainfall patterns, soil types, diseases and pests, and more. This analysis then allows for better and more nuanced decisions about when to plant and when to harvest.
But it wouldn’t be feasible if the data needed wasn’t open, so that developers creating tools for agri-business could work with it and collaborate with other developers in their ecosystem. And there are plenty of other examples of the way open data is helping make a positive impact.
Data does have an intrinsic commercial value – it is bought and sold all the time. But kept in silos, that value can never really reach its full potential. Instead of being thought of as the new oil, it should be treated like the genesis of a great idea, which only gets better as more people have an opportunity to contribute to and improve it.
Frameworks and foundations
Of course, while advocating that data becomes more open, we cannot avoid concerns about privacy, security, IP, and maintaining incentives for investment. The EU’s aim to ensure there are robust protection frameworks in place is to be applauded. The same European values that form the basis of the EU’s fundamental rights, democratic freedoms and social justice ethos are reflected in the data strategy, underpinned by the principle of “as open as possible, as closed as necessary”.
Public sector bodies have a key role to play in improving and promoting the use of effective legal agreements and governance tools that facilitate access to data by all users. Without frameworks for data sharing between organizations, we risk a trust deficit.
But the EU’s role goes much further. Addressing social inequalities is one of its guiding principles. Its capacity for regulating markets, fostering competition and safeguarding citizens’ rights could become a blueprint for closing the data divide. This is something Microsoft, too, has been working towards, because we do not believe that an ever-growing data divide is inevitable.
We all have a duty to act ethically and responsibly and embed key principles of transparency, accountability, security, privacy, safety, and inclusiveness into our organizational cultures. Improved access to data, with the right frameworks and greater openness, can build towards better economic outcomes and more collaborative, effective solutions for the challenges we face as a society.
By acting now and joining together, more civil society organizations, governments and businesses of all sizes will be able to realize the full value of data and help Europe better achieve its digital transformation and growth objectives.
The European vision is clear and much welcomed. At Microsoft we stand ready to contribute with our insights and technology. Joining forces and finding solutions across the public and private sectors will be key to deliver on Europe’s digital aspirations. And open data is the foundation.
To find out more about “Driving Data Sharing and Collaboration Opportunities in Europe” join our debate on July 2.
- What do we mean by open data and data collaboration?
- Closing the data divide: the need for open data
- 4 ways sharing data is improving our world